Identify & Avoid Bad Bugs During Training
As a nak muay, I’m preoccupied with perfecting my technique, improving my timing, and increasing my endurance.
I don’t often worry about whether or not the mats are clean, the heavy bags have been wiped down, or if my teammates come to training with germs. These things should concern me, however, just as they should concern all Muay Thai practitioners.
As martial artists and fighters, we often unknowingly expose ourselves to some nasty bugs. These viruses and bacteria can make us very sick and affect our ability to train and compete.
Learn to recognize some of these gnarly infections that can plague fight gyms, and how to prevent them.
Ed.: Here is the complete list of sources used for this article.
Ringworm is a highly contagious fungal infection that appears as a scaly, crusty rash on the skin or on the scalp.
Even though it’s is in the name, no actual worms are involved in the contraction or spread of this infection (although it’s still pretty gross). The name comes from the shape of the rash, which is round like a ring.1
The name of this germ changes depending on where the infection presents on the body: on the feet, it’s “athlete’s foot” and on the groin, it’s called “jock itch.”
These rashes usually appear 4 to 14 days after someone has been exposed to the fungus.2
The best way to get ringworm is to drill, spar or clinch with someone who already has it. You can also contract ringworm from an infected person’s towels, clothing, training gear, and brushes or combs.
The fungi that cause ringworm can live on surfaces as well, especially in damp areas like showers, locker rooms, and gear bins.3
Ringworm is pretty common, but you can prevent it by following some basic hygiene tips. Don’t share gear or clothing with teammates. Shower immediately after training. Don’t walk around the locker room or showers in bare feet (wear flip flops). And if you do happen contract ringworm, see a doctor right away for a prescription antifungal medication or cream.3
Norovirus is an extremely contagious bug sometimes called the “stomach flu.”
The virus causes inflammation in the stomach and intestines, leading to cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.4
A person infected with norovirus will generally start to develop these symptoms about 12 to 48 hours after exposure, and can remain sick anywhere from a day to a week.5
People catch norovirus by ingesting human fecal matter. Yep, you read that correctly.
Norovirus happens because people don’t wash their hands after using the restroom and then go about their day, touching gym equipment, Thai pads, the heavy bag, and the ring ropes. When a healthy person then touches one of those surfaces and later happens to put in their mouth guard, eat a post-training snack, or wipe sweat away from their upper lip6 … well, you get the idea.
Norovirus typically spreads through poor food service practices but can also spread quickly in places like gyms where everyone touches a lot of the same equipment and people experience a lot of person-to-person contact.
The best way to prevent norovirus is to do what your mom told you to do when you were a kid and wash your hands, especially after using the restroom. You should also avoid touching your mouth or mouth guard with unwashed hands. Running to the restroom to wash up before putting in your gum shield takes less time than having to recover from a stomach bug.
If you have symptoms of norovirus (cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea), be sure to stay well-hydrated and do not come to training until you’re better.7
Just as ringworm has nothing to do with worms, rhinoviruses have nothing to do with rhinos (Surprise!)
In fact, you have probably already had many run-ins with rhinoviruses in your lifetime: these little buggers are what most often cause “the common cold.” A little cold might not sound that serious, but it can be a pain if you’re training to get ready for a fight.
Symptoms include sore throat, runny nose (usually the first two signs of a cold), coughing, sneezing, headaches, and body aches.8
Muay Thai is a close contact sport, especially when clinching is involved. Colds can easily spread through the air and through person-to-person contact.
Be sure to wash your hands regularly with soap and water before and right after training, and, like with norovirus, avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands.
If you happen to come down with a bad cold, don’t try to be a hero and train through it. Rest, recover, and avoid sharing your germs with others.8
Staphylococcus aureus, or “staph” for short, are bacteria commonly carried on the skin or in the noses of healthy people. These bacteria can live in and on human beings without causing problems, but they can cause unpleasant infections if they are able to enter the bloodstream, joints, bones, or lungs.9
A lot of staph infections can be treated with antibiotics like methicillin, but some staph bacteria have become resistant to this and other medications. This type of staph infection is called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.10
Fighters should be especially mindful of contracting staph skin infections. Staph bacteria spread easily though cuts, scrapes, and skin-to-skin contact (and there are a lot of all of these things in Muay Thai!)
Skin infections with staph and MRSA look the same: watch for a pimple or boil on the skin that is swollen, painful and possibly filled with pus — which I know it’s gross, but learning how to recognize these infections could save you a lot of pain.
If the boil is warm to the touch and accompanied by fever, make sure to seek medical attention as soon as possible.11
If you have any cuts or open wounds, make sure that you cover them with an antibiotic ointment and a bandage before you come to training.
If your bandage happens to fall off or be torn away during training, replace it immediately.
Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before applying anything to your cuts or abrasions.
Avoid sharing personal items like towels and especially razors. Shower off when you’re finished training, even if you have another session that day. As always, make sure that you and your teammates wipe down equipment when you’re finished training, and clean the training mats, heavy bags and Thai pads in between classes.12
You probably know influenza viruses by their more common name: the dreaded flu.
A lot of people think that the flu is just a really bad cold because they have similar symptoms; this is a big misconception.
As stated before, colds are most often caused by rhinoviruses, whereas the flu is caused by influenza viruses.13 A cold is usually milder, and people generally recover within a week, while the flu is much more serious and can take up to two weeks or more to shake off.
What’s worse, the flu can sometimes lead to serious complications like pneumonia, which can be incredibly dangerous.14
Flu symptoms include fever, chills, cough, runny/stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, and extreme fatigue.
The flu is an interesting bug because it circulates in new, adapted strains every year. Each year before flu season, health researchers try to predict the strains of flu that are most likely to circulate within the human population.15 They then try to protect the human population by providing a flu shot that protects against these predicted strains (usually 3 or 4 strains at a time).16
The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot every year.17, 18 Even if you do become infected with a less common flu strain that isn’t covered by that year’s shot, your recovery will be much easier and shorter because your immune system will already have an idea of how to combat that season’s flu strains.
You can also practice good hand-washing, stay away from people who are sick, and avoid touching your mouth and nose (much like with colds).
Make sure that surfaces in the gym are cleaned regularly and that people who are coughing and sneezing are sent home, especially if they have fever.18
If you do happen to catch the flu, seeking attention right away to get some antivirals like Tamiflu will help speed your recovery.
Beware of antibiotics, however. Flu is caused by viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics won’t help you and you’ll just be taking medicine you don’t need.19
Get plenty of rest, stay well-hydrated, and talk to your doctor about what medications to take to manage your fever.
Remember, fellow nak muays!
Many of these gym germs can be prevented by simply remaining hygienic and vigilant.
Wash your hands. Clean the gym. Don’t share gear.
Stay home if you’re sick. And get well soon!
- Emily is a martial artist who has trained and fought in Muay Thai for the last four years in Miami, FL. Now based in Atlanta, GA, she continues to train and grow in the martial arts while balancing her work as a health behavior researcher. Her dream is to combine her passion for both martial arts and population health so she can help make the world a healthier, better place.